As a young married woman, I was excited to start a family. I had dreamed of being a mother since I was 5 years old. When I became pregnant for the first time, I suppose I was like most expectant moms. I found myself dreaming of all of the wonderful experiences I would have with this child and more to come. I knew that there would be a lot of hard work involved and plenty of unexpected struggles. However, I was also confident that God would be with me through this journey and that He would provide hope during difficult times.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2).
Real Joy, Real Pain
As the mother of two adult daughters, I can say that being a mother has been the greatest joy of my life. I recall the exhilaration of new skills learned and the excitement of celebrations. Perhaps most satisfying, however, were those moments that may have seemed inconsequential to others. They are among my most coveted memories. Reading stories together, seeing my kids love their friends, and having conversations with my teens about their futures were truly rewarding experiences.
But that only tells half of the story. I wasn’t prepared for the daily heartache I felt while coping with some extraordinary challenges my children faced. God did carry me through and help me endure motherhood in difficult situations. In retrospect, I can see that suffering as a mother strengthened my faith and made me more dependent on God. What I learned through persevering was life-changing. In the midst of several traumatic events, however, it was just painful. And I imagine that many other moms can relate to that pain — moms like Kari.
A Change of Plans
Kari was well on her way to planning her dream wedding. She was excited about her stunning dress, the gorgeous floral bouquets, and the venue. Most of all, she was excited to be marrying Noah, the love of her life. Unfortunately, Kari was diagnosed with cancer before the wedding. Noah stood by her through this illness, patiently praying and waiting for her to be healthy enough for them to begin their life together. In September, three years after the original wedding date, Kari and Noah were married.
The newlyweds quickly started planning for a future family. Since both Noah and Kari came from large families, they were hoping to have at least five children. The delay in their marriage meant that they wanted to start soon. They assumed that they’d had enough “in sickness and in health” for a lifetime and were excited to begin the process of trying to conceive.
Getting pregnant was fairly easy for Kari, but it soon became clear that carrying a baby to full term would be a challenge. She and Noah dealt with a difficult situation when after a first miscarriage, there was a second one and then a third. Kari learned that she had a rare medical condition that made the completion of a pregnancy highly unlikely.
Each loss added a new layer of grief to their lives. Kari and Noah were devastated over the realization that they may never be able to have biological children. After consulting with an OB/GYN, receiving counseling, and working with their pastor, Kari and Noah decided to continue to attempt to conceive. Two more miscarriages followed before Kari conceived and gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Emmibeth. After little Emmi was born, they decided to adopt three more children: twin boys from Russia and a two-year-old girl from Romania.
Kari and Noah often discuss the special challenges and difficult situations they have faced with all of their children. While difficulties for Emmi came before she was born, the challenges that they have faced with their adopted children — Sasha, Mikal, and Sopi — came after birth due to the impoverished environments in which they were born. Their challenges include behaviors related to past trauma, illness related to malnutrition, and physical and emotional disabilities. Thankfully, there are many services available to help Kari and her family cope with these issues. She is clear that her family has been blessed to receive care and support from many gifted and competent doctors, therapists, social workers, teachers, and other caregivers.
Responding to Difficult Situations
While Kari and Noah are grateful for their family, Kari has found it especially difficult to reconcile her expectations of what motherhood would be like with the reality of her current life. Therefore, she joined a support group with other moms who have found healthy ways to cope with motherhood in difficult situations. She’s careful to point out that there have been many unexpected gifts that have come with her unique motherhood journey and that she deeply loves her children.
The joy of being a mom can sometimes be disturbed by difficult situations in life. No woman expects such challenges when dreaming of being a mother. Excitement and anticipation typically ebb and flow with each new stage of motherhood. However, as moms cope with unpredictable situations, these feelings may be disrupted. As moms learn to adjust to disruptions, they will often find joy in unexpected places.
“And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do” (Deuteronomy 14:29).
Here are a number of difficult situations mothers may face, some of the realities that go along with these difficulties, and how to find help and support in these situations.
1. Pregnancy Losses
There are a variety of reasons that some women experience the loss of a pregnancy. These losses may cause them to feel fearful and anxious as they go through subsequent pregnancies. While nearly all women feel grief after the loss of a pregnancy, many will take time to grieve, heal, and will be able to conceive again. However, because each woman is unique and experiences loss differently, a woman’s response to a pregnancy loss may range from sadness to devastation.
The death of a baby in the womb, during labor, or after birth is difficult on so many levels. There is the loss of the child, of course, but there is also an abrupt end to what the mom and dad have been anticipating for many months: the dreams for their child and the new roles they would adopt as parents. Moms must also cope with hormonal changes. These changes are a reminder that the baby she longed for is gone. She then has to tell others about the loss. Parents often face months of painful explanations to people who are looking to congratulate them and meet their new baby.
A woman’s life after an abortion may be filtered through the lens of confusion and guilt. Contrary to what is sometimes reported, many women do not choose abortion as a convenient way to end an inconvenience in their lives. Instead, they often feel trapped in a difficult situation and that there is no other viable option. These women may face years of depression and guilt. Later in life when they have children, the daily reminder of what they lost may be heartbreaking.
With good support, women who have had an abortion can process their grief and loss. They can seek the Lord for forgiveness and find shelter in the loving arms of a gracious Father.
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).
Many women suffer in silence for decades before receiving help. This delays a woman’s opportunity to experience the freeing forgiveness of the Lord. And it may also keep her from being available to minister to other moms who are considering an abortion or struggling after an abortion. It’s helpful to encourage women touched by abortion to seek help as soon as possible.
Support For a Pregnancy Loss
If you have experienced a pregnancy loss, here are some steps to follow:
- Give yourself time to grieve and heal — both physically and emotionally.
- Seek the support of other moms who have experienced similar losses.
- Reach out to some of the programs that are well-equipped to help you heal. M.E.N.D. , Care Net, and Surrendering the Secret are three excellent resources to get you started.
2. A Mother or Child’s Illness
It is fairly common for parents to look to the future without planning for an unexpected crisis. However, it’s not uncommon for mothers and children to be faced with physical or mental illness. These experiences may interfere with opportunities for moms and their kids to connect regularly and to celebrate special events. It is painful for moms in these situations to cope with her, or her children, having to miss out on times of connection that build supportive relationships for the future. Additionally, parents may find it difficult to care for siblings of sick children as they rally to tackle an illness or prepare for the loss of a child.
Illnesses tend to remove regular routines from life as the focus becomes moving from one hospital stay to the next, or back and forth between appointments. Life slows down or stands still as the illness determines the family’s rhythm. Treatments may also be so costly that families need to adjust their finances and living situations in order to afford quality care. Stress and loss are common experiences when physical or mental illnesses become part of mothering. In these cases, families often have to redefine a new normal.
Creating a Support System
It’s often helpful for parents to put together a support system in order to cope with difficult situations such as unexpected illness. Here are some resources for finding and building a strong support system:
- Trusted friends and family members
- Doctors and other medical professionals
- Mental health professionals
- Teachers and other education professionals
- Financial advisors
- Fellow patients and their families
God doesn’t expect us to walk through the journey of parenthood alone. We are encouraged to recognize that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1). We are also told to help one another in Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Caring for a loved one with a disability can be tough, but with Joni and friends you're not alone!
3. A Child’s Disability
Janet Stafford feels blessed to be the mother of a child with Down syndrome. She’s been inspired by her daughter Kirsten’s infectious joy, acceptance of all, and endless empathy. Always sensitive to others who may be hurting, Kirsten willingly gives hugs. She’s taught her mom to celebrate small, yet important things, along with big accomplishments. While these and other unexpected rewards come with mothering a child with a disability, there are also plenty of challenges. It can be similar to mothering a child with an illness. However, while an illness may be cured or in remission for years at a time, many disabilities may cause permanent physical or mental impairments. These may limit a child’s ability to participate in essential activities for daily living. A disability may make it difficult for a child to care for himself, progress through school, walk, talk, or get a job.
Different Types of Disabilities
Some disabilities, such as visual or auditory disabilities, may only affect one area of a child’s life. In these cases, with the help of physicians, visual therapists, audiologists, and speech-language pathologists, moms may be able to help their child adjust to the disability without experiencing significant disruptions. The effects of other conditions may cause disabilities in physical, emotional, cognitive, psychological, and social areas. Some examples of disorders that may cause a variety of delays are: Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, Fragile X syndrome, spina bifida, and autism. When children are born with these conditions, moms may have to readjust their expectations for their children in regard to reaching developmental milestones.
Still, mothers are privileged to celebrate new accomplishments as they come, even if not when expected. Moms see other children progress through the ages and stages of childhood typically, while their children may be delayed in one or more areas. Therefore, moms of children with special needs often become familiar with grief and loss. However, there is often unpredictable excitement and celebration along the way. With the help of a support team, including family, friends, and medical professionals, parents of children with disabilities can experience life with great hope and deep joy.
Caregiving and Support
Caring for children with disabilities that affect many areas of development takes quite a bit of time, energy, money, and emotional resources. This may put a strain on a marriage or on other typically developing children in the family. Some moms have to accept the idea that their children will never be able to live independently. Therefore, they will need to make long term arrangements for their children to live with them or in a supportive environment. Mothers of children with disabilities may have to give up some of the freedoms that other moms enjoy. They typically find themselves needing to put their goals on hold while they seek help for their children.
Fortunately, with good support, families can learn many ways to adjust to the challenges of a disability. Then they have the time to be impacted by the many contributions of a child with special challenges. And they may be inspired by their perseverance and touched by the hope that results. Romans 5:3-5 reminds us:
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Thankfully, there are many resources available to help children with disabilities and their families. In the United States, all states are required to have early childhood intervention programs. These programs provide free or low-cost evaluations for children up to the age of 3 who are suspected of having a developmental delay or disabilities. Those who qualify receive therapy and other intervention services at minimal cost. When children are over 3 years of age and have a qualified diagnosis, public schools in their area are required to have special education services available to address their needs. Schools may only offer a limited amount of help, but there are numerous organizations — such as the Children’s Hospital Association, March of Dimes, and Easter Seals — that can offer assistance to kids in need of special services.
Janet Stafford talks openly about loving her child with Down syndrome, and what she has learned from her daughter’s compassion, hope, and joy.
4. Mothering Through a Traumatic Incident
A mother’s routine with her child may be affected by an unexpected traumatic incident. Some examples might include the loss of a family member due to death, divorce, or incarceration. Or a frightening event such as a natural disaster or school shooting might impact the family. In these instances, both the mom and the child are grieving at the same time. There are typically a number of changes, and reactions to those changes, that need to be addressed. It’s common for people to question where God is when tragic events occur, but also for them to turn to God for answers. There is solace in knowing that God cares for us in the most difficult of circumstances.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
In addition to leaving a family feeling crushed, these events may disrupt the family’s equilibrium. It takes intentional effort to bring things back to a state of balance. This is an excellent time to seek the help of a family therapist. Often, people who resist the idea of mental health treatment for other problems in their lives are able to understand that a traumatic incident has impacted their family in a significant way, and realize they need help to restore order and provide comfort for each other. The incident becomes the identified culprit rather than a family member. A family therapist will focus on the impact that the incident has had on the functioning of the family. He or she will work with the family to address concerns and come up with some solutions for healing.
For counseling services and referrals, this is a great place to start.
5. Adopting a Child From a Traumatic Background
Other moms may adopt children from foster care. God calls us to care for children and some are called to be foster or adoptive families. The rewards for parents and children who participate in foster care are abundant. On one hand, parents may be positively impacted by the experience of being exposed to a new culture and having the opportunity to encourage birth moms and dads. On the other hand, children entering into foster care are typically doing so because their birth parents are unable to care for them. So they are introduced to an environment where they can feel safe and well cared for. They may begin to enjoy experiences they haven’t had before and benefit from others’ kindness, such as celebrating their birthdays and appreciating their unique skills. Children also benefit from living in an environment where they can learn about their feelings and behaviors.
Some parents adopt children from foreign orphanages where the care may have been substandard, neglectful, or abusive. Or they become parents of children whose mothers had drug or alcohol addictions. Others may have been victims of domestic violence. It’s a blessing for families to be able to open their hearts and their homes to provide a safer, more loving environment for these children. However, the physical and psychological trauma that these children experienced in the womb or after birth has deeply affected them.
So along with the joys of being a foster or adoptive family, there are usually some challenges. Parenting techniques that work for kids from healthy backgrounds do not always work for kids who come from difficult situations. Being the mother of a child from a traumatic background is challenging. There will likely be attachment issues, behavioral concerns, and potentially things like eating and self-care problems.
Because friends and family members don’t always understand that the child’s issues are related to past trauma, they may become frustrated when traditional methods of parenting are not successful. This can leave foster and/or adoptive moms feeling defensive, alone, and isolated. Even worse, these moms may be made to feel as if they are inadequate by people who blame faulty parenting for the child’s problems. Therefore, specific help from physicians, social workers, mental health experts, and others is necessary. A program known as Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) has been shown to be particularly helpful for parents and kids who are struggling with early trauma. Also, Back2Back Ministries offers research-based principles and strategies to support families parenting children with trauma histories.
Support Is the Key in Difficult Situations
My parenting journey has included difficult pregnancies, a child’s disability, and a chronic illness that nearly took the life of my beloved daughter. Our family was also exposed to multiple traumatic incidents and the suicides of several people close to us. I didn’t expect to have to cope with any of those experiences as a mother. However, I found comfort in knowing that God knew what was to transpire in my life and that of my family. We struggled through and survived each of these trials by remaining focused on the love and grace of God. And building a network of personal and professional supporters was and is essential for motherhood in difficult situations. The journey was burdensome but prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and faith — along with the support of many others — was instrumental in moving our family toward healing and hope.
If you are finding it hard to cope as a mother, for any reason, please feel free to call Focus on the Family and talk with one of our counselors at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).
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